I’ve been looking forward to seeing Guyana: Crime of the Century for a while and can say that I was not disappointed. The only reason I dropped the grade from 4 to 3 iron crosses is because maybe there could have been a little bit more editing and the lighting was incredibly dim. I don’t know if that’s the DVD transfer or the way it was shot. If it was the DVD, then I apologize.
Either way, Rene Cardona Jr.’s film received the hilarious “zero stars” from Roger Ebert when he saw the film at the beginning of 1980. The version he saw was actually called Guyana: Cult of the Damned (not to be confused with the 1969 film Cult of the Damned) and was edited down to 96 minutes from the unneccesarily long 115 minute version I saw and had a voice-over narration. That might have been a slightly tighter, more compact film.
But why am I arguing technique when the only reason I watched the movie was to see if it is as tasteless, shocking and repulsive as its reputation? The Jonestown massacre is officially considered the largest loss of American lives at a single time before 9/11 and what makes it even more disturbing is the fact that the Reverand Jim Jones was such a well respected public figure. Under a socialist guise, he united people of various ethnicities and races and promoted equality. He was praised by a number of public figures like Walter Mondale and Rosalyn Carter.
So what went wrong? Of course no questions are answered in Guyana: Crime of the Century. If you want a real documentary about the topic, check out Jonestone: Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Cardona’s film is an exploitation film.
There isn’t much plot to the film really. Rev. James Johnson (Stuart Whitman) does a bunch of over the top, Hitler-like sermons in spite of preaching against Hitler, tyranny, violence and bigotry. The people believe and follow him from San Francisco to their tiny, self-constructed colony called Johnstontown in the jungles of Guyana.
At first a few people bitch about not getting any better food than rice and bread. Soon, three children are brutally punished for petty theft. This is where the dim lighting really annoyed me. Was the one kid dipped in tar, hot oil or just water? One kid had electric shockers put on his balls and one was covered in snakes, I guess. There’s another scene where a man is punished for having sex with his wife by being forced to do the sexual act with a big black guy. Unfortunately we don’t get to see this part. There’s also a scene where reporters go into a giant shack to see a bunch of bodies stowed away like in a “slave galley.”
There are a few scenes that follow the real life narrative, particularly when the movie version of Congressman Leo Ryan along with some reporters visits Jonestown in order to bring back some of its prisoners resulting in their being gunned down. Also Joseph Cotton and Yvonne De Carlo play toss-aside roles as lawyer and press person, etc.
But, as expected, the true impact lies in the gruesome climax. It starts with the Jim Jones speech as people line up to drink koolaid. Then we see people forcing others to drink the substance, we see a horrified woman shrieking that she doesn’t want to die, we see a mother feeding the substance to her baby then to herself and then clutching her baby as she crumples to the floor. But, above all, we see Rev. James Johnson from the perspective of the dying temple members in a psychedelic sepia tone, which, given this stylistic choice, sorta proves Cardona wasn’t going for a truly documentary vibe with this. At the end, the camera shows us the sign that says, “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Yep, it’s a message movie.